This week, everyone’s head collectively exploded with the revelation that (gasp) back in the 60’s, Harvard scientists were paid off by the sugar industry to blame fat for health problems.  Then came the aftershocks of such news are coming out that Surprise! this isn’t a single isolated incident, and this kind of thing happens all the time.

My response was “Wait? Is this really breaking news?  Were there still people who didn’t already know this?” I mean wasn’t it 2014 when Time had a cover photo that said “Eat Butter: Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about how I read and think about research I come across, and this seems as good a time as any to at least initiate what might be the first of many posts on the subject.  When reading science journals, it feels like for every study that says something is good/ bad for you, I can also find at least one to refute it, so how do I know which study is correct?

At my job, we regularly do Journal Clubs, in which we share and discuss other published research that is relevant to our lab’s research.  It’s a practice that I’d like to institute on this blog, should I come across any interesting nutritional studies.

A few of the guidelines my boss has for our lab journal clubs:

  1. How old is it?  Generally, in our research, we don’t discuss articles beyond 10 years old and preferably not more than 5 years old.  This is because the research is advancing so quickly that any lingering questions left from the results of the paper have likely already been answered.  In nutrition, I’m no expert since it is not my field of study, but I think older article’s can be worth reading for some background information, but I might rely more heavily on more recent research (if the experimental design is sound)
  2.  We always are expected to choose a journal club paper that is relevant to our lab’s research or at least a proposed direction for our research.  Since I am not currently studying nutrition exactly, but I am studying an inflammatory disease, I can apply my knowledge of inflammation mechanisms to the research I read.
  3. My boss also asks us to always be a little critical of the paper we are presenting. What experimental controls did they miss?  Based on the data they present, do you necessarily come to the same conclusions they do or is there an alternative hypothesis that they failed to address?  I think this is a useful tip to any study you read, especially in nutrition studies.
  4.  This isn’t necessarily a tip on just journal club, but more relative to our data when it comes to presenting our conclusions: “Correlation doesn’t equal causation, and on the flipside, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  Something to keep in mind to help keep from jumping to extreme conclusions when presented with data.

The “Correlation doesn’t equal causation” issue is especially important and it is probably my biggest pet peeve when people make a causation argument in regards to nutritional suggestions. A couple of years ago, I posted this post to my facebook page, in let’s call it a social media experiment.  Of course, facebook included the photo of the graph without even needing to click on the link.  Within minutes, I basically had every  anti-GMOer (we’ll save them for another post) or anti-vaxxer friend or family member outraged and commenting.  Of course, this proved that they did READ the article, which is exactly what the article was intending to highlight.  This is basically the way this conversation went down.

Commenter : The prevalence of GMOs is missing from this graph. 

Me: So, did you read the article? You seem to have missed something.

Commenter: Hah! You are so correct! I didn’t stop to read the article, I just read the graph. I’m a perfect example of the point the article is trying to make here. JEEZ!

Me: (insert mic drop here)

I guess my best approach in the realm of research (and maybe because I am a Gretchen Rubin-defined questioner) is to take any research study with a grain of salt (even the ones that agree with me), and always be open to be proven wrong.  So, those anti-GMOers and anti-vaxxers may convert me yet (I highly doubt it, but you never know).